Where Does Our Creativity Come From?

Dr. Oshin Vartanian is the Don Quixote of neuroscience. He is trying to map out the brain’s circuitry when creative thoughts are being processed. His colleagues believe he is fighting windmills, and his quest is futile. This is because scientists have been searching for that answer for 15 years and they seem to be no closer to the answer than when they started.

They have been able to eliminate the belief that creativity is seated in the right side of the brain, and have begun to explore the interesting possibility that it is related to the ability to silence our inner critic.

A study by William & Mary College researcher Kyung Hee Kim (yet unpublished) suggests that the level of creativity is dwindling across the United States and Canada, at least as indicated by commonly used tests to measure it. Dr. Kim’s research involved 300,000 adults and children. The hope of Dr. Vartanian is that his experiments can lead to a better understanding of the creative process, and in doing so will help teachers to encourage it in the classroom and reverse that trend.

Dr. Vartanian, is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He believes that he, as well as others, are getting closer in understanding the variations in creativity, and what they have in common.   They have found the research to be challenging, however, since it is a bit difficult to be creative while tied to a brain scanner.

They have found the processes that bring a scientist his special ideas is not the same that goes makes a writer excited about an inspired phrase, and a musician’s brain operates differently when creating a tune than that of a mathematician.

What is it that makes the brain more flexible? According to Charles Limb, a surgeon and saxophonist who is the research director of the Neuro Education initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Boston.

Limb took a group of professional jazz musicians and asked them to play a keyboard as he attached them to a brain imager in order for him to observe the different activity in the brain when they improvised material as to music they have memorized. He found the inner critic area of the brain, the part that plays a role in self-restraint and evaluation, was turned off when the musicians were improvising, and the area of self-expression was turned up and active.

“My instincts tell me this has to be an important component, this mechanism by which the brain shuts off inhibitory impulses,” Limb said.

Vartanian painstakingly maps areas of the brain during creative problem solving, and then looks to see whether patients with damage to those areas have difficulty performing the same kind of tasks. He believes that a part of the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobes, plays an important role. It becomes active when people are shown bizarre images of a teapot with legs, or a key with a snake coming out of it, and they then loosen their perceptual or conceptual constraints to accommodate novelty. That part of the brain is also active when people find creative solutions to puzzles. He thinks its job may be to suppress activity in regions that would normally offer a reality check on wild ideas.

Vartanian believes breaking down creativity into different steps is essential if scientists are going to identify the networks or regions involved in creativity. “The standard model for creativity is you need to bring all the different concepts you are thinking and manipulate them and fuse them into new concepts,” Vartanian said. “We tend to think the frontal lobes are heavily involved in this.”

Some neuroscientists, like Arne Dietrich at American University of Beirut — remain skeptical that much progress is being made. He has compared the quest to understand creativity in the brain to nailing jelly to a wall.

But Dr. Vartanian plans to persevere.” Initially, a lot of people were looking for the holy grail,” he said. “They were searching for the creativity module in the brain. Now we know it is more complicated. We need to look for the component processes, and then somehow bring it all together.”

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.


The Globe and Mail — Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/science/neuroscientists-try-to-unlock-the-origins-of-creativity/article1887117/

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